The following is based on comment, I posted on http://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/knowledge-is-porridge/
The challenge for educating our young to take part in politics, is that teaching is no longer about educating. Moreover educating is no longer about teaching someone to think or wonder about the world. We appear to have succumbed to the pragmatic revolution suggested by Dewey and other education reformers. The pragmatism within education is further reinforced by the access to nearly unlimited sources of information.
The internet allows us to find information, but it does not help us understand it nor does it give meaning. We rarely get past the surface of an idea to understand what it means. Children are no longer taught the skills necessary to think for themselves to ask questions so that they can understand for themselves. Instead, they seem to be taught enough to problem solve.
We no longer start with fundamental questions like, why is there something and not nothing? What is the best way to live? Are we living the best way? If not, why not? These are not idle questions, nor armchair philosophy questions; they are the lifeblood of our day to day life, our society, and our politics. Instead we are taught pragmatism, find the information, with the hope that somehow this will be turned into some sort of knowledge about how best to live. As if more information found on the internet will allow one to make a better choice. The NHS debate, for example, is shallow and nearly meaningless because it is reduce to pragmatic alternatives. We do not see nor do we look to understand how the reforms or lack thereof will change the shape of society and what the government’s means within society. It is as if those fundamental questions have been answered (satisfactorily) and we are just arguing about the different pragmatic approaches.
As people are not taught to think, to ask questions, they will accept the popular opinion or whatever passes for the accepted widsdom of the day. Children and students have more information than anyone alive in history, and yet, they are more likely to make shallow and superficial decisions because they have not been trained to find or meaning or make sense of what the information means.
One way to illustrate the issue is how atheism is often discussed on Twitter. The atheist I “meet” seem unaware that their apparently radical and creative stance is actually warmed over Heideggerian existentialism. They never stop to consider what it means to not believe in god. In effect, they seem to profess an anti-religiosity or anti-established religion and not the nihilism that is true atheism. In effect, they want the atheism light without the side effects of what Heidegger’s intellectual stepfather, Nietzsche, described. He argued that he consequences of such a belief was corrosive to society and its political structure. History has shown what th Nazi and the Communist tyranny did when a belief in atheistic nihilism takes political power. The issue though is not simply whether atheism is the right way to live, but rather what that belief means for society if it were the right way to live. For example, instead of atheism what would happen if the person said they were a racist or a cannibal? Would we be able to explain or understand why that was wrong beyond saying that there are laws against those beliefs and acting on those beliefs? Again, we rarely see people going beyond the surface of their beliefs and why they hold them.
The issue of education is not reserved to a political philosopher. The question is practical and real, it fits our day to day life. Why do we obey the law? Is the law simply good because a majority believe it is? If so, can that opinion be changed? What if that opinion about the “goodness of the law” is wrong? If there is no authority beyond man, and man is the measure of all things, what limits are there on man? Even if we seek to follow our reason, how many of us are taught the rudimentary skills to do so? We seem to be educated just enough to accept what society offers. Pragmatism as an educational philosophy does not allow us to move far, if at all, beyond the accepted wisdom. We seem unable to explore why it is that how we live is the best way to live? If it is not the best way to live, we then do not ask the follow up questions of why we live that way nor how do we live the best way.
When schooling is focused on a pragmatic philosophy, people cannot make political (moral) choices with any coherence beyond a pure cost benefit calculation. We seem to accept the maxim for our politics that if it feels good do it. If the sum of politics is simply about doing the best for the majority, what is it that makes that right? Simply that more people believe it? Again, we are hard pressed to understand that argument because we are not taught to understand the danger of what that argument means. If majority rule without protections for the minority, how is that different from tyranny? In the end, the pragmatic education we receive in schools today reduces the human experience because it cannot tell us what it is to be human. How can we encourage others and ourselves to greatness, to achieve, to dream for wider horizons when we seem to be reduced to a life that is simply satisfying our genitalia? Is it any wonder the celebrity culture is such a powerful attraction, when that is considered to be the height of human achievement? Be a celebrity? Yet, what is that life, what does it mean? Is it a life that fulfils us as a human being?
Returning education to training people to think, not simply to problem solve, is about teaching them what it means to be human. What is it about the human condition that drives us forward beyond some crude biological destiny? Such a discussion is not about elitism, it is about enabling the average person, the citizen, to take part fully as a human being in the political world around them where these questions are decided whether they understand them or not.
If we educate people about the best way to live, to live in accordance with the laws, to understand why the laws are good, and what a good law is, we may encourage people to obey law. If we educate people what it is to be human, the intrinsic worth of a person, we may encourage a respect for the elderly and the young. If we educate people to think through the best way to live, we would see that our political choices have to expand. We could move beyond a pragmatic choice of what’s in it for me to a wider understanding that any political decision has to be measured against what it means for the common good.
Our education does not stop at school and that gives us hope that we can begin to wrestle with the big questions so that we can understand the day to day world better and make choices that help us fulfil our humanity and enrich the common good. An education like that would change our society forever.